The name Harmon Killebrew summons memories of happier times for
the hundreds of terminally ill patients around the country whom
he visits each year. Some recall the titanic Killebrew blast in
1962 that flew over the leftfield roof and out of Tiger Stadium.
Others remember the two-run shot at Metropolitan Stadium in '65
that beat the New York Yankees in a pivotal midseason game and
helped spur the Impossible Twins to the World Series. Killebrew,
who played most of his games at first or third base, used his
Paul Bunyan physique to crush 573 home runs for the Washington
Senators, Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals between 1954
and '75 and earned a spot in the Hall of Fame.
Killebrew knows the patients' pain. In May 1990, complaining of
a piercing sensation in his neck and back, he was rushed to a
hospital and treated for a collapsed right lung and damaged
esophagus. Months later, long after he had returned home, he
still didn't feel right. A CAT scan revealed an abscess the size
of a football nestled behind his lung. Draining the growth
required a rib resection and left Killebrew with a four-inch
hole in his back. A staph infection entered through the open
wound and quickly moved to Killebrew's ankles. Immobilized, the
5'11", 170-pound (40 pounds lighter than his playing weight)
Killebrew again was rushed to a hospital, where doctors tried
for 10 days to halt the raging infection. "I was in really bad
shape," says Killebrew. Finally, doctors and his fiancee, Nita,
conferred and decided that Harmon should go home to die.
At his rented home in Scottsdale, Ariz., Killebrew received
attention similar to the hospice care given patients with less
than six months to live. However, in December 1990, with
constant attention from Nita--and heavy doses of
antibiotics--the infection miraculously subsided. "The doctors
all said they didn't expect to see me again," says Killebrew,
who married Nita shortly after regaining his health. "My wife is
the reason I'm alive today."
In 1993, Killebrew purchased that same house from landlord Barry
Smith, president and CEO of VistaCare, a company specializing in
hospice care. Now Killebrew travels the nation as a spokesman
for Smith's company, speaking to doctors and visiting hospice
patients. "Hospice is such a tremendous thing," Killebrew says.
"Patients seem to reach an inner peace. Society doesn't like to
deal with death, but it's a natural part of living."
Never a big talker, Killebrew, 63, developed excellent listening
skills, which helped him conduct a pregame radio interview show
for 12 seasons while he was playing for the Twins. Now he
listens to patients, providing happy memories for them in their
Killebrew should go home to die.